COVID-19: How to distinguish a coronavirus infection from an allergy

COVID-19: How to distinguish a coronavirus infection from an allergy

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Intense birch pollen season: symptoms similar to COVID-19

Due to the mild winter, the birch pollen season will start earlier this year and be particularly intense. For people with birch pollen allergy, it is important to know how the symptoms of an allergy differ from those of viral respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 or influenza. Because the complaints are similar, can easily be confused and lead to uncertainty.

Millions of people suffer from a pollen allergy. In the coming weeks, people who are allergic to birch pollen will face complaints. This can lead to uncertainty among those affected. Because some symptoms of allergy are similar to those of a coronavirus infection. Experts explain how to recognize the differences.

Early start of the pollen season

As the Medical University (MedUni) Vienna writes in a current announcement, the winter 2019/2020 was unusually mild. The pollen season therefore started earlier this year with the flowering of hazel and alder and also much more strongly than in the long-term average.

In addition, the constant ups and downs of temperatures in the past few weeks have given allergy sufferers a real show-off on busy and stress-free days. But the spook has come to an end now, especially in the lowlands, hazel and alder have largely bloomed.

The next wave of pollution follows with ash, the allergological potential of which is often underestimated. Your pollen count has already started and is expected to be more intensive this year as well.

Stronger birch pollen season expected

When the temperature in the near future climbs constantly to over 15 degrees Celsius, the birch begins to release its pollen to the wind.

"This year the amount of pollen will be significantly above the long-term average - even above that of the previous year, which was already high," explains Maximilian Bastl from the Austrian pollen warning service at MedUni Vienna.

"It currently looks as if a stronger birch pollen season is imminent in all regions of Austria, which will start around two weeks earlier than usual," said the expert.

Birch is known as a common and strong allergen

The birch is known as a common and strong allergen. About half of all allergy sufferers react (also) to birch pollen.

According to Uwe E. Berger from the Austrian Pollen Warning Service, those affected will probably suffer particularly badly this year, because in addition to the amount of pollen, the course of the season also has a significant impact on the perceived stress.

“If the pollen concentration rises slowly, the body can adjust better to the stress and feels the season is not as strong. However, if pollen flies suddenly, as is the case this year, the season will be perceived as stronger. ”

And the increasing pollution caused by air pollutants also takes its toll. According to Berger, this puts the plants under stress and creates more allergens.

Allergic symptoms misinterpreted as a viral infection

Allergic symptoms are often misinterpreted as a viral infection.

"At the moment, this is particularly unsettling, as many fear that they will have COVID-19," says Erika Jensen-Jarolim from the Institute for Pathophysiology and Allergy Research at MedUni Vienna and Vice President of the Austrian Society for Allergology and Immunology (ÖGAI).

The expert explains the main characteristics of an allergy and how to tell the difference to a coronavirus infection.

The course of a pollen allergy changes again and again during the pollen season. In COVID-19, 80 percent of the cases are mild to moderate. In severe cases, rapid deterioration is possible.

With coronaviurs disease, fever is a key symptom, people with pollen allergy do not get an elevated temperature.

In allergy sufferers, the eyes itch and are often reddened due to inflammation of the conjunctiva. The nose also itches frequently and runs permanently or is blocked. Sneezing fits can occur as soon as you are exposed to an increased pollen load. With COVID-19, however, according to the expert, there are no complaints to the eyes and nose.

However, the condition can lead to severe dry cough and shortness of breath. In very severe cases also pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome or lung failure.

The respiratory tract is also affected by a pollen allergy: the bronchial congestion and narrowing caused by allergy can lead to shortness of breath (up to asthma) and wheezing noises (“wheezing”), especially when exhaling.

Fatigue and fatigue are described for both allergy and illness.

The viral infection sometimes causes pain in the muscles, joints, neck and head. And sometimes diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

Treat and prevent

According to the expert, the symptoms of a pollen allergy improve when taking or administering symptom-relieving medications such as antihistamines and cortisone.

Home remedies for hay fever such as cooling compresses for itchy eyes can also help.

Allergen-specific immunotherapy is also available. This has proven itself for many years and is effective in the long term.

However, causative therapy is not yet available for COVID-19. Only the symptoms are treated here.

Allergy sufferers who want to protect themselves should avoid allergen exposure as much as possible, for example by making activities outdoors dependent on pollen count, using pollen filters or, if possible, staying at the sea.

In order to minimize the risk of infection with the new corona virus, hygiene measures such as regular hand washing must be observed. But above all, social distancing is particularly important, i.e. to limit social contacts to an absolute minimum. (ad)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • MedUni Vienna: Birch pollen season is getting intense, (accessed: March 21, 2020), MedUni Vienna

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